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An example of a strong Christian woman

by
22 November 2013

The new Hunger Games film offers positive challenges for the Church, says Rachel Mann

Role model: Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which is released today

Role model: Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which is released today

THE film industry has been looking for a worthy successor to Harry Potter and the Twilight series for a couple of years. In the shape of the Hunger Games trilogy, perhaps it finally has films that cross over from the teen to the adult demographic. The second film in the series, Catching Fire, is released today, and for Christians interested in how popular culture relates to faith, it offers a theological feast.

Based on the novels of Suzanne Collins, the Hunger Games trilogy stars the Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl facing impossible challenges in a dystopic future.

Katniss lives in Panem, a country that succeeds a war-destroyed United States, and is ruled by the wealthy and decadent inhabitants of the Capitol and the manipulative President Snow. Like most "citizens", she lives under an oppressive system, which forces her to provide cheap goods for the Capitol.

Every year, the Capitol maintains its control by selecting two teenagers from each outlying district to act as tributes, who are then forced to fight to the death in an event entitled the Hunger Games. The story follows Katniss's battle to survive as a tribute, and bring down the oppressive system of Panem.

From a Christian point of view, part of the fascination of the Hunger Games lies in the fact that it seems such unpromising material. Whereas Harry Potter, for example, was clearly grounded in a narrative of sacrificial love, the Hunger Games is bleaker fare. It is unsentimental about the fact that, in a world based on exploitation and repression, young people will be offered up as victims.

For a children's book, it might seem to have more in common with Game of Thrones than Harry Potter ( Comment, 14 June). Yet it offers a striking vision of what hope and faith might look like in appalling times.


THE heroine Katniss is that rarest thing in fantasy literature - an impressively active, courageous, and inspiring young woman; she is a fine Christian and feminist role-model.

Despite the seeming absence of religion in her world, she presents a powerful Christian example in her preparedness to lay down her life for the sake of others. She volunteers to be a tribute in place of her sister, in the knowledge that in doing so, the odds of her survival are negligible.

Equally, when she is in the combat arena, she subverts the cruel system on several occasions. She demonstrates love and compassion towards the youngest participant in the games, Rue, by singing to her, after Rue is mortally wounded. Katniss gives her dignity in death by covering her in flowers.

At the end of the first book, when Katniss and a fellow tribute are expected to fight to the death, she manufactures a situation in which both will die rather than be a winner. Her willingness to sacrifice herself ultimately forces the system to declare them both "winners".

She is a strong feminist icon, too. Whereas the heroine of the Twilight novels, Bella Swan, seems intent only on pleasing her man/vampire, Katniss is, at 17, effectively the head of her household. She provides for her sick, bereaved mother, and is practical and responsible, without succumbing to self-pity.

Her survival skills, developed in the harsh conditions of the Appalachian Mountains, become crucial to her success in the Hunger Games. Unlike many female heroines, she does not rely on looks or popularity to succeed.


CHRISTIANITY has often struggled to provide strong, active images of women; so often, they have been characterised as plaster saints or wicked sinners in need of redemption.

If Katniss is an icon of Christ, she also connects with a biblical tradition of women such as Martha. While Martha has typically been seen as someone overly focused on domestic tasks, some critics have argued that she was actually the head of her household.

If this was the case, and she was charged with responsibility for Mary and Lazarus, her practical responses become more impressive.

Like Katniss, Martha is honest and direct. When Jesus fails to show up for Lazarus's funeral (John 11), it is Martha who points out this failure on Jesus's part. She represents the costs that women who take charge and responsibility face, in a society set up for male power.


AS A Christian, one might be cautious about celebrating Katniss's acts of violence - she kills a number of people - but she is not so different from the biblical character of Deborah.

Deborah fulfils many roles in pre-monarchical Israel - judge and prophet, as well as warrior and leader. She successfully leads a counter-attack against Jabin, the Canaanite king.

Even if we rightly question the historical accuracy of Old Testament accounts, the story of Deborah is one of a strong independent woman, leading her people in a fight against an oppressive regime. As a prophet, she reminds Israel of its call to be faithful to the living God.

Katniss is a young woman thrown by circumstance into the position of being a figure of hope. Despite her very human doubts, and the fact that she abhors violence, she becomes the focal point for resistance in Panem. She reminds the oppressed people that they are called to follow a path of justice and respect for the weakest.

Social justice is one of the crucial aspects of Christianity, although sometimes, because of the Church's anxious focus on reversing declining influence and numbers, the call to such justice gets lost. The story of Katniss Everdeen is a parable that reminds us why we should never lose sight of it.

If the Hunger Games is sometimes unsubtle, its picture of a world in which a small number of people live lives of self-indulgent luxury by exploiting the resources of the majority is a potent one. Even if we in the countries of the North are not quite as obsessed with show, fame, and maintaining our comfort as the people in Panem's Capitol, we are not far off.

As Christians, we are constantly being called to pay attention to God's hunger for justice. Thankfully, we do not live in a society that maintains its position by forcing groups of young people to fight to the death, but we should not hide from the exploitation inherent in our system.

Our clothes, food, and privilege are maintained at enormous cost to the majority in the world. The young - as in our own society - bear the excess weight of that exploitation. Our call as Christians is to stand with the Katniss Everdeens of our world.

The Revd Rachel Mann is Priest-in-Charge of St Nicholas's, Burnage, Manchester, poet-in-residence at Manchester Cathedral, and the author of The Risen Dust (Wild Goose, 2013).

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